The no. 26 (April 11) issue of Novaya Gazeta contains a piece entitled “The Constitution of Russia Does Not Cover the Children of Chechnya,” authored by award-winning war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya, in which she interviewed Oleg Zhaba, the official Representative for the Rights of Children of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration of Akhmad Kadyrov. Since 1994, Zhaba, who came to Chechnya a year ago and found that “he could not leave,” has also been a member of the Council for the Affairs of Youth of the President of Russia.
Asked by Politkovskaya what he saw as “the most serious problem” in regard to children living in present-day Chechnya, Zhaba responded unequivocally: “An absence of the possibility of feeling oneself under the protection of the law. My viewpoint consists in holding that all children–without exception–in today’s Chechnya, even though they are not literally being thrown out onto the street, are–all 392,000 of them–uncared for from the point of view of the constitution of Russia. The fundamental law of our country, a part of which continues to be Chechnya, does not extend to those children. They are not under its protection.”
Zhaba proceeded to note that (according to official figures) “over the past year more than 90 children have perished [in Chechnya] in the course of ‘cleansing operations.’ And all of these deaths were directly linked to the actions of the [Russian] soldiers.” Zhaba, who retired in the rank of captain from the military in 1995, confided that when he mentions this statistic to the Russian soldiers serving in Chechnya, they justify themselves by claiming that “the children are aiding the rebels.” “I answer them thus,” Zhaba went on, “Fifty-eight of the 90 children were of pre-school age!” Obviously, he noted, the relatives of these children “will never be reconciled to the presence of federal forces in Chechnya.”
The retired captain also informed Politkovskaya that he is not permitted to observe the conducting of cleansing operations (even though he is an official of the pro-Moscow Kadyrov administration). “I have made attempts,” he confided, “but without success.”
“The children here,” Zhaba related, “are afraid of everything. They are afraid to go to school, to go home from school, to shop at the market…. They are afraid to live. If a child is older than 10 to 12 years of age, then it must be ensured that he not be part of a ‘cleansing operation,’ and that he not be seen by the soldiers.” Remarkably, he added, polls taken among school-age children in Chechnya show that they do not blame ethnic Russians as a people for their wretched life. “The children in Chechnya are wise, they perceive a person the way he is and not according to his nationality.”
According to these polls, Zhaba continued, “17 percent of the children of Chechnya, whether they want it or not, are today forced to work independently to feed themselves. Some also feed their entire families. A large part of them remarked that they would very much like to attend school but they have no such opportunities.” Another constant concern among the children, Zhaba added, is “their own health.” “Where,” he asked, “do we see normal children worrying about their health?” In other areas of Russia, Zhaba went on, children contemplate such “dreams” as purchasing a television or a computer, but in Chechnya their dream is that “papa and mama should find permanent work.”
It is time, Zhaba concluded, for ethnic Russians and other citizens of Russia to begin actively helping the children of Chechnya. “The international humanitarian organizations which are now trying to bring aid into Chechnya,” he observed, “are of course not bad, but I would like to see something else: The most positive thing that could take place would be the activization of the work of our own Russian social organizations.” “Perhaps I am naïve,” Zhaba confided, “but children need to be shown that someone is their friend!” He favors inviting select Chechen children to study in other regions of Russia but added that they need to have people assigned to work with them to ensure that they do not fall victim to discrimination and ethnic hatred.
Asked by Politkovskaya whether “the consciousness of the [Russian] soldiers in Chechnya is capable of being reformed,” Zhaba said: “I think it can be. As an officer in the reserves… I can say one thing: everything depends on the commanders. If the commanders are normal people, then everything will assume its proper place…. An army is always a directed mechanism.”
To sum up, while Zhaba appears to be quite sincere and straightforward in attempting to better the traumatized life of Chechen children, it should be noted that he himself seems far from certain that the Russian military and MVD forces presently conducting cleansing operations in Chechnya can be brought around to his own point of view. And what if some commanders turn out not to be “normal people”? And what if many soldiers fervently believe that Chechen children are aiding and abetting the separatists? And what if these same soldiers continue to see each child over 10 to 12 years of age as a target to be harshly “cleansed”? It is difficult to derive a sense of optimism from reading this most interesting interview.